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Swindling brothers spin engrossing drama in Top Dog/Underdog.

Brothers Booth and Lincoln enjoy a moment of harmony.
  • Brothers Booth and Lincoln enjoy a moment of harmony.

As Johnny Cash and Jerry Seinfeld have illustrated, your name can be an enormous influence on how you live your life. In "A Boy Named Sue," Cash had a hit with Shel Silverstein's lyrics about a boy whose father named him Sue to toughen up the kid in Dad's absence. And as Seinfeld has observed in his monologues, "When you name your kid Jeeves, you've pretty much mapped out his future." So, when a black dad names his two sons Lincoln and Booth, you just know there's going to be hell to pay down the road.

Those brothers, now grown, make up the complete cast and the major reason to experience the enthralling comic drama Top Dog/Underdog at Beck Center's Studio Theater. This Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Suzan-Lori Parks echoes "Sue" in another way, since Lincoln and Booth's parents abandoned them before they were fully grown. The men's background has marked them indelibly, and their search for inner stability has led each to engage in con games and masquerades that offer control -- even when playing the victim. The thematic beauty of Parks' script is that this is a deal we all make, since we are all running a "con" in our public personas to deal with the wrenching realities that life deals out.

Elder brother Lincoln, a former veteran of the street hustle known as three-card monte, is now gainfully if curiously employed as an Abraham Lincoln impressionist, in whiteface, in an arcade shooting gallery. Yep; he sits in a chair all day long, wearing a stovepipe hat and pretending to watch My American Cousin, while paying customers line up to cap him (literally, with a cap gun) like latter-day John Wilkeses. On the other hand, brother Booth, impulsive and exuberant, is trying to learn the card shtick Lincoln has abandoned while attempting to coax his big bro back into that lucrative enterprise. Even though arcade life is tacky ("It smells like cotton candy and rat shit") and repetitive, Lincoln is afraid the owners might replace him with a wax dummy. So to enhance his value to the carny bosses, he's working on his dying slump and death rattle.

Booth is also working diligently, on his three-card-monte rap and sleight of hand, even as he's constantly talking up his romance with the unseen Grace. He takes a little time off to boost a new wardrobe for himself and Lincoln, arriving back at their ratty flat to delight his brother with a shoplifter striptease, executed to the beat of James Brown. Their warm sharing of this larcenous windfall only serves to set up the tragic events to come, after we learn how damaged Booth was earlier in life, when he encountered his mother and her backdoor men in the act.

Playwright Parks weaves jazzy, energetic dialogue to the rhythm of three-card monte's figure-eight shuffle, creating the kind of hypnotic attraction to her words that curbside con artists employ to draw marks to their cardboard gaming tables. Indeed, this simple but remarkably effective swindle -- in which a dealer shows his audience three face-up playing cards, creased lengthwise, and then flips them over and maneuvers them rapidly before asking a dupe to select the target card -- is a resonant metaphor for these characters. Both Lincoln and Booth have been bent by forces beyond their control and are in constant motion, revealing and then hiding their identities, as they try to get one up on society or attempt to reclaim their own shabby lives.

The profoundly intuitive performances, delivered under the sure-handed direction of Dale Ricardo Shields, are entirely credible throughout, even when the action borders on the absurd. Ed Blunt is a restrained and thoughtful Lincoln, watching his brother with a dealer's eyes and trying to maintain his equilibrium in this updated Cain-and-Abel tale. When Blunt, as Lincoln, succumbs to the lure of the cards and begins his silky, spiraling come-on, he fingers the cards and caresses the words with the light, knowing touch of a master. His equal in every way, Jimmie D. Woody is a vulnerable but volatile Booth, as scary in his angry moments as he is tender when tucking in his brother or browsing sadly through skin magazines. Woody's manic highs, though, are infectious and lend an often upbeat dimension to the story. Together, Blunt and Woody fashion a bond of blood and destiny that has visceral power.

Given the characters' names, the play ends in perhaps the most predictable way possible, its obviousness somewhat diminishing the impact of the work. But these two men are on a collision course; a different outcome, while theatrically preferable, might ultimately have been impossible. The disguises we don to get through the day all exact a penalty, and this fascinating play reveals just how steep that price can be.

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